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Parliamentary Debate on Black and Ethnic Minority Pupils and School Exclusions

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01 Apr 2007

Ms Diane Abbott: I am grateful to have the opportunity to raise a key educational matter. I shall speak about the education system and black and minority ethnic children, and will specifically address the disproportionate levels of exclusion among black and minority ethnic children.

When my Government came to power in 1997, one of their themes was “education, education, education”. That was right, because education is not just the key to our society now, but to our competitiveness as society goes forward in a modern, globalised world. There is no doubt that the Government have many educational achievements to their credit. In my constituency, Hackney North, millions of pounds have been poured into the new academy programme and I have seen standards rise.

Since I have been a Member of Parliament, I have argued consistently that educational standards cannot be raised in the inner city overall without raising the standards of black children. Apart from anything else, that is a statistical point, because in the inner London boroughs, the majority of children are black and minority ethnic. In some of those boroughs—notably Brent and Lambeth—the largest single group of children are black children. Progress has been made on the issue, but, sadly, for many years the Department for Children, Schools and Families and the educational establishment generally have clung to a colour-blind approach to these matters. I shall demonstrate that that has been exemplified in the way in which the Department has approached exclusions. The colour-blind approach of which officials are so proud has failed at least three generations of black children.

Before talking about exclusion specifically, I want to paint a picture for the Minister about where we are in relation to black and minority ethnic children in the school system generally. I shall quote from a report from the former Department of Education and Skills on black exclusions that was published last year. This is the situation that now exists:

“Black Caribbean pupils are significantly more likely to be permanently excluded—3 times more likely than White pupils.”

The Minister will probably say that is because of their class background and the fact they have special educational needs. In fact, even when that figure is controlled, for the take up of free school meals, which is a rough and ready indicator of class and special educational needs, black Caribbean pupils are still 2.6 times more likely to be permanently excluded. Black pupils are routinely punished more harshly, praised less, told off more often and are 1.5 times more likely than white pupils to be identified as having behaviour related to special educational needs.

In relation to base-line entry tests, black pupils outperform their white peers at the start of school, but the new observation-based foundation stage profile reverses that pattern. Black pupils are disproportionately put in bottom sets, and as someone whose child went through the school system and went to a state primary close to my home in Hackney, I have seen that with my own eyes. The following is an interesting quote from a Department for Education and Skills report, “Evaluation of Aiming High: African Caribbean Achievement Project”:

“Whilst many teachers...believed setting to be based solely on ability, data indicated that African Caribbean pupils were sometimes relegated to lower sets due to their behaviour, rather than their ability.”

Finally, an important point to which I will return is that when we asked newly qualified teachers about how their training had prepared them to teach pupils from minority ethnic backgrounds, 22 per cent. rated their course as poor. Only 35 per cent. of newly qualified teachers rated their course as good for preparing them to teach black children, as opposed to the 60 per cent. who rated their course as good preparation for the teaching children of all abilities.

That is the current picture. I say to the Minister that this issue is neither new—it goes back decades—nor marginal. It may seem a marginal problem in some parts of the country, but in all our big cities—London, Birmingham, Manchester and Bristol—the issue of minority ethnic educational underachievement and the problem of school exclusions that goes with it is the key to raising standards overall for children. The problem goes back at least to the 1970s. In 1971, the black academic, Bernard Coard, produced a seminal work entitled “How the West Indian is Made Educationally Subnormal in the British School System”. Since then, academics, activists, black commentators and educators have raised the issue of how the school system fails black children. However, they have not simply addressed issues relating to the mainstream school system. There is a proud history of community-based initiatives, Saturday schools and other projects through which the community has tried to help its children raise their standards.

Over the past decades, as well as in recent years, I have held five successive conferences in London entitled, “London Schools and the Black Child”. I have been privileged to hear Ministers speak at all of those conferences, and they have attracted the attendance of more than 2,000 black parents and educators. I cannot think of any educational conferences of that type in London that would have 2,000 parents and teachers queuing around the block at nine o’clock on a Saturday morning. Officials who attended the conference can confirm that that was the case, and it shows how important education is to black parents. When we ask black parents informally and formally what the top issue is, they say it is exclusion. Again, the Department of Education and Skills priority review on the exclusion of black pupils, “Getting it. Getting it right”, discusses the iconic status of the exclusion issue for black communities. Black parents do not believe that the school system is meeting the needs of their children unless something is done about the disproportionate level of exclusions.

The issue may be new to some officials and the Minister, but the Department and Ofsted have been looking at the problem for more than a decade. In 1996, an Ofsted report showed that excluded black pupils did not have the same deprivation characteristics as excluded white pupils. In other words, the exclusion of black pupils was not wholly tied to class background and special educations needs; there were other factors involved. In 1996, a review of research into BEM education produced for Ofsted highlighted the dual problem of high exclusion rates and poor educational outcomes for black pupils. In 1999, Osler and Hill did another piece of research that highlighted those twin interrelated problems: poor educational outcomes and high exclusion levels. Ten years ago, that piece of research pointed out that specific targets were needed to lower black exclusion levels.

In the late 1990s, the Runnymede Trust produced a report entitled “Black and Ethnic Minority Young People and Educational Disadvantage”, which found that despite the wealth of small-scale research into the problem of different exclusion levels for black pupils, there was no clear policy line on how to tackle the problem. In 1999, a briefing paper by the Runnymede Trust called for the Government to set specific national and local targets to reduce the disproportionate exclusion of black pupils. A book written in 2000 by a group of respected teachers and educators, “Race, Class and Gender in Exclusion from School”, discussed the interplay between race and gender in the construction of black boys as hyper-masculine. The Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, has produced a number of reports on the issue and has called for an increase in the number of black teachers and for a teaching work force in London that looks like London. The London Development Agency undertook a major research review in 2003 and, among other things, found that many teachers have lower expectations of black pupils and that black pupils feel that they receive less positive input and, in some cases, even experience discrimination from teachers.

In 2003, the Commission for Racial Equality attempted to research to what extent schools have implemented the Race Relations (Amendment) Act 2000. It found many schools unwilling to partake in the research, and the schools to which it did manage to speak generally had not implemented the race relations duty and had no clear goals for improvement. In 2004, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation found that, in some areas, black Caribbean pupils were 15 times more likely to be excluded than their white counterparts. In 2005, a report commissioned by the Department for Education and Skills entitled “Minority Ethnic Exclusions and the Race Relations (Amendment) Act 2000” stated that despite a significant amount of literature from the CRE and the Department on exclusions and the race relations duty, that information was not impacting on schools or local authorities sufficiently. It is not me saying that, it is not campaigners and it is not the black community—it is the Department’s own report. The report’s authors found in their research that a significant minority of schools were failing to implement the duties in the race relations legislation, specifically regarding exclusion levels. In November 2005, the DFES high-level group on race equality identified the high exclusion rate of black pupils as a priority area for action. An academic working in the Department at the time produced a paper to introduce key arguments on institutional racism. Most importantly and most recently, in 2007, the Department published its “Priority Review: Exclusion of Black Pupils”, with the subtitle “Getting it. Getting it right”. That report highlighted the marginal status of race equality as a concept in the education system and the tendency to ignore racial or cultural differences. The report was quite exhaustive. I have a copy with me. Senior officials undertook visits to organisations that worked with young people who had been excluded from schools. They had face-to-face conversations with excluded
black young people. A literature and statistical review was compiled by the schools analysis and research division. There were conversations with key opinion formers and stakeholders in the area.

There we have it. There has been more than 10 years of research on black exclusions, much of it by the Department and the rest by universally acknowledged academic experts in the field. More recently, since the 2007 exclusion of black pupils priority review, an independent report on citizenship education was produced by Sir Keith Ajegbo, who commented that the high level of black exclusions could be due to institutional racism. In 2007, the National Union of Teachers produced a charter on the issue. It argued, among other things, that teachers should have a responsibility to demonstrate cultural competency and to work with parents and carers to reduce the high number of exclusions of black Caribbean boys.

I have referred to the Department’s own research and to academic research. I have said that even when we allow for social class and special educational needs, black pupils are 2.6 times more likely to be excluded than white pupils. I say to Ministers that I believe that the official figures for exclusions understate the number of black children unofficially excluded from our schools system, and that the real figure for black children who find themselves outside the schools system may be even higher than the official figures suggest, because schools, conscious that figures are now collected, have found other ways of excluding children unofficially that they do not have to report.

I have been raising this issue with Ministers and in Parliament for almost all the time I have been a Member of Parliament, so I am sure that this Minister will understand why I am astounded at the relative inactivity of his Department over the past 10 years on this matter. After a decade of substantial research, comment and evidence of disproportionality, why do the statistics still tell us that black and ethnic minority children are far more likely to be excluded from school? I would say that, certainly in London, 80 per cent.—the majority of those excluded—are black boys.

I would point to two particular aspects of the exclusions crisis. First, we have to recognise that the disproportionate level of exclusions of black children is more than just a statistical anomaly. Children who are excluded from school tend to become excluded from society. It is not just a question of disrupting a child’s education; it can have a knock-on effect on the rest of someone’s life. Being excluded from school is a tragedy for the child, even though they may not recognise it at the time. It is certainly a tragedy for the family. I have sat with many mothers who were in tears because their son had been excluded and they did not know what to do and were not offered the right support. They believed that their child’s life was, in a sense, over. I agree with the Department’s own black exclusions priority review that, for the black community, school exclusions are as significant and poignant an issue as the stop-and-search laws.

I have spoken about the mothers I have worked with over the years who are distraught at finding themselves with a child who has been excluded and without the support, help and advice that they need, but let us be more specific. Being excluded from school automatically means disruption to education, no matter what other provisions are put in place. It has been argued, not unreasonably, that the disproportionately high level of black exclusions is making the achievement gap between black and other students worse. The Department’s priority review said that excluded black pupils were one third less likely to achieve the standard five A to C GCSE grades.

The exclusions crisis has an impact on unemployment. A 2004 report for the Prince’s Trust stated that half of unemployed young people said that a lack of qualifications had led to their unemployment. Leaving school without qualifications makes it much more likely that young people will move into unemployment, benefits and even crime. The Department’s priority review suggests that exclusion from school means that black pupils are 3 per cent. more likely to be unemployed and will on average suffer a reduction of £36,000 in lifetime earnings.

If the Government are not interested in anything else, they can focus on crime. In 2004, 80 per cent. of the juveniles in prison had been excluded from school. I repeat: 80 per cent. Compared with the general population, prisoners are 20 times more likely to have been excluded from school. The previous director general of Her Majesty’s Prison Service, Martin Narey, said in 2001:

“The 13,000 young people excluded from school each year might as well be given a date by which to join the prison service some time later down the line.”

Even if officials and Ministers are not concerned about the tragedy of exclusion for the family involved, and even if they cannot see that they cannot make a step change in achievement in London without doing something about exclusions, the link between exclusions and criminality—80 per cent. of juveniles in prison were excluded from school—ought to concentrate Ministers’ minds. We ought to be seeing some joined-up government from a Government who, on the one hand, talk about the problem of antisocial behaviour and fighting crime but, on the other hand, have moved too slowly on exclusions.

Secondly, there is some evidence that the disproportionate exclusion rate for black and minority ethnic pupils is tantamount to a breach of the race relations legislation. The Department’s 2005 report, “Minority Ethnic Exclusions and the Race Relations (Amendment) Act 2000”, said:

“In a significant minority of secondary, primary, special schools and PRUs”—

pupil referral units—

“it would appear that the general and specific duties of the RRAA are not being fully met.”

The report concluded that

“where schools were not implementing the duties of the RRAA, the disproportionalities in exclusions by ethnic group should be considered institutionally racist outcomes.”

In effect, schools and local education authorities are not fulfilling their obligations under the race relations legislation, and I believe that the Government are not doing enough to ensure that they do so. The black exclusions priority review—an excellent document, which I recommend to the Minister if he has not read it—was finished in September 2006. However, the Government did not release it then. It was released only when the review was leaked to a newspaper. It was finally released in March 2007, more than six months after it was completed. It discusses the importance of focusing on black school exclusions and of recognising the presence of institutionalised racism, yet after its release a spokesman for the Department was quoted as saying: “It is hard to see how using this label”—institutional racism—“would help schools and local authorities to take intelligent action to tackle the issue.”

None the less, the review recommended a specific focus on black school exclusions and said that the Department should do more. The review came out last year, so I looked at the section in the Department’s website on exclusion to find the information, help and advice on black exclusion that a teacher or parent might need, but it contained no specific information on that issue, only general information. The 2007 guidance on exclusion, which is designed for use by teachers and governors, does not include any of the issues pointed out by the priority review. It is as if the priority review did not happen for officials. The only part of the website where black school exclusions are considered is the research and statistics section, which provides a link to reports from 2003 to 2005, but there is no reference whatever on the website to the Department’s work on the black exclusions priority review.

I realise that the website is not a definitive reflection of the Department’s attitude to the subject, and that teachers who are looking for information can go elsewhere—perhaps they could find something useful on TeacherNet, for example. However, I cannot hide my disappointment when Ministers are, ostensibly, so positive. In March 2007, the Minister for Schools and Learners said that the Government wanted to ensure that they were better

“able to equip our schools to identify the in-school factors and have a better understanding of ‘culturally different’ behaviours”.

In October last year, when the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families was challenged on the fact that black boys are three times more likely to be excluded, he said:

“Every head and governing body should be challenging these figures. There are very few schools that are not challenged by teaching and preparing pupils for a more diverse society. This is not a minority issue”.

However, the message does not appear to have seeped down to officials. I could understand a softly-softly approach and a focus on research and pilot projects if the issue was new but, as I have spelled out to Ministers, the issue has been researched and set out for more than a decade.

There are success stories—we know what works—but we seem to be lacking leadership. The arguments have been made for more than a decade, and I would like local authorities and schools to set clear targets for reducing exclusions, and school exclusion data to be broken down by ethnicity and made available in the same way as other data about schools. As a parent, I believe that it is a great injustice that parents can obtain information on exam results and levels of pastoral care, but not on the level of exclusions of black boys. It is time that such information was made available.

I am aware that as a consequence of black exclusion support in 2007, the Department set up a pilot project. I shall not detain the Minister by talking about the failings of the project, as I hope to have an opportunity to meet the Secretary of State. The pilot project is a great disappointment—it does not even properly reflect the recommendations of the Department’s review. The Government have made progress, both on education generally and on black educational underachievement. I should like to put on record the fact that Lord Adonis is the most constructive and engaged schools Minister with whom I have dealt in the 10 years in which I have lobbied on the issue of black underachievement, and I am grateful to him for the help and support that he has given me on a range of issues. However, on the specific issue of black children and exclusion from school, it seems that the Department is still moving too slowly and that the model used in the pilot is defective in ways that I do not have the time to spell out here.

I shall end by quoting from the Government’s priority review on the exclusion of black pupils:

“Left to its own devices, the system will conclude that Every Child Matters, but that Black children’s failure and social exclusion is be expected—that they matter a little bit less”.

I have spent 20 years in Parliament arguing that no matter how difficult it is for officials or however marginal the issue seems to Ministers, black children should not matter “a little bit less” than other children. If the Government’s commitment on education means anything, it should mean a commitment to every single child, whatever their colour or religion, achieving their very best within the school system, for their own and society’s benefit. It should also mean that the Government bear down on the long-standing issue of the disproportionate level of exclusion, and that they should do so now.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families (Kevin Brennan): I shall do my best in the five minutes that I have to respond to my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott). I congratulate her on securing the debate on this extremely important issue.

Because of the time constraints, I shall respond first to three specific points that she made before making more formal observations. First, I undertake to look at the fact that no specific reference is made to black exclusions in the exclusions section of the website, and to come back to her on the matter. Secondly, on targets for exclusions and breaking the data down by ethnicity, my hon. Friend was quite right about the “Getting it. Getting it right” report. There was a significant and interesting breakdown in the report, which I have read, which confirms many of the points that she made on exclusion. She spoke in particular about black boys. In some minority ethnic groups, exclusion rates are lower than the national average, but there is the particular problem that she rightly identified and on which she has campaigned for many years. Thirdly, given that she did not have time to go into detail about her specific concerns about the pilot, perhaps she will write to me so that I can look into them.

I shall try to cover as much of the issue as possible in the remaining time. I agree with my hon. Friend that nothing is more important than ensuring that every child succeeds. She has met our right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and, as she mentioned, Lord Adonis, to discuss what more the Government can do, not only to raise the attainment of black and ethnic minority pupils, but to do something on the exclusion issue. She also mentioned the progress that has been made. In fact, black Caribbean pupils’ results at GCSE have risen by almost double the national increase in the past five years, and now more than half of them achieve five GCSEs at grades A to C, compared with only one third in 2003. Among black African pupils, there has been an increase of 15 per cent. in the past five years. There have been improvements in attainment in school, which she acknowledged. However, we acknowledge—I share much of her analysis of the problem—that we must not be colour blind, and that there is still much to address and progress to be made on exclusion.

As she pointed out, it is a complex problem, and a range of factors are likely to contribute to the solution, including raising aspirations, ensuring that young people want to come to school, promoting better community cohesion, creating strategies for dealing with the problems of conflict and friction, training and support of teachers, and recruiting more minority ethnic teachers, as she said, and getting them involved so that our schools more closely reflect the communities they serve. She will be aware that a number of programmes have been introduced, and she may wish to send me her views on achievement programmes for black pupils and black children. “Aiming High” is the first national strategy to address attainment inequality through regional and local strategies that are targeted at specific ethnic minority groups. It is not only about bringing those pupils up to the national average—we are also asking schools to identify the gifted and talented youngsters in those groups.

She referred to the 2006 report, “Getting it. Getting it right”, which identified many of the details of the problems to which she referred. Those involved in the national strategies are working closely with us to trial a set of approaches and materials to effect cultural change in the education system. Given the time constraints, I cannot say much about that today, but I hope that my hon. Friend will send me more details about that and the London challenge programme, which is a five-year partnership between Government, schools and boroughs in London to focus on raising standards in the capital’s secondary schools.

Of course, some groups need extra support, in particular, as she mentioned, black boys. To raise the attainment of black boys in London, the Government office for London is supporting voluntary and community sector organisations in developing new models of excellence in different areas. Another important aspect is supporting and recruiting teachers as positive role models. My hon. Friend has taken the initiative to achieve that aim, which the Government wholeheartedly support. I did not have much time to respond to my hon. Friend, but I shall write to her in more detail.

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